Sir Walter Scott was one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century. His popularity and influence were not limited to Scotland or to the British Isles—he was admired and widely read throughout Europe and the United States. His novels are sweeping historical romances, but underneath the swordplay and the grandeur lies a firm moral underpinning.
Scott was born in Edinburgh, but, when he was less than two years of age, a childhood illness forced the family to send him to live with his grandparents at their home, Sandy Knowe, thirty miles southeast of the city. He remained there until he was seven or eight years of age. This was border country, a region filled with visual historic landmarks of the Scots’ long and bloody conflicts with the English. Scott himself was descended from ancient chieftains as well as from the first laird of Raeburn. To keep the young Scott entertained, both of his grandparents recounted the oral history of the region and of his own family. He grew up immersed in the romance and tragedy of the Jacobite rebellion and the endless skirmishes in which the Scots fought to keep themselves free from British dominion.
Scott retained his childhood fascination with both the history and the landscape of Scotland, and these constitute the settings of almost all of his novels. Indeed, one of Scott’s crowning achievements as a novelist is his ability to make history and landscapes breathe with life. Almost all of Scotland’s history is presented in one or another of his novels. The Fair Maid of Perth, which portrays medieval Scotland, provides an excellent example of this. In its preface, Scott informs the reader of his fascination with the story of the battle between members of two prominent Highland clans that took place in Perth in 1396, in front of the court of King Robert III. Using this incident as a starting point, Scott gives a clear and accurate picture of the period and those who lived then. His portrayal of the weak and ineffectual King Robert, who is dominated by his treacherous brother, the duke of Albany, puts a human face on history. Robert’s relationship with his son, Rothsay, is recounted in all of its tragedy. History itself proves melodramatic. Two other historical figures play key roles in the story. Conachar is based on a Highlands chief who fled the conflict, and Henry Gow on a townsman named Henry Wynd,...
(The entire section is 973 words.)